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Wonggu (1880–1959)

by Mickey Dewar

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Wonggu (c.1880-1959), Aboriginal leader, was born into the Djapu clan from Caledon Bay, north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory. The Djapu are part of a larger group of the indigenous inhabitants of north-east Arnhem Land who call themselves Yolngu (the people), and others Balanda (outsiders). In the past non-Aborigines often but incorrectly referred to the Yolngu as the Balamumu. Wonggu's name has been spelt in various ways, including Wongo, Ongoo and Wongu. When Donald Thomson met him in the mid-1930s, he judged him to be over 50 years of age. By then he was the senior elder of the Djapu, with more than twenty wives and at least sixty children.

In August 1932 Wonggu and his large clan began collecting and processing trepang in Caledon Bay for Frederick Gray, captain of the lugger Northam. Next month two similar vessels, Myrtle Olga and Raff, crewed by six Japanese and eight Aborigines, sailed into the bay to gather trepang. On the morning of 17 September the Djapu attacked the Japanese, five of whom were killed (the other escaped). Historians have suggested various motives for the killings: a protest against non-Aboriginal incursion into Arnhem Land; anger over the exploitation of Aboriginal labour in the trepang industry; revenge for insults and verbal abuse; punishment for the sexual mistreatment of Aboriginal women; and the protection of nearby sacred sites from possible desecration.

Gray and his men immediately departed in the three luggers for Darwin, reporting the occurrence to the administration by telegram from Milingimbi en route. Efforts by the police in 1932-33 to apprehend the perpetrators were unsuccessful. The press erroneously linked the killing of three Europeans in the region in 1933 to the massacre at Caledon Bay and the incidents became known as the 'Black War'. Three of Wonggu's sons, Mau (Mow), Natjelma (Natchelma, Watchelma) and Narkaya (Narkaia), were implicated as leaders of the assault on the Japanese trepangers. In 1934 Gray persuaded them to accompany him and Hubert Warren's 'peace party' to Darwin. They stood trial for murder and on 1 August T. A. Wells sentenced them to twenty years imprisonment. After lobbying by groups and individuals concerned about Aboriginal welfare, the three men were released in June 1936; they were repatriated by Donald Thomson, who had been commissioned by the Commonwealth government to establish good relations with the Yolngu.

In 1937-38 Wonggu and his family left the Caledon Bay area and settled at Yirrkala, a mission station on the Gove Peninsula established by the Methodists in 1935 in response to the Caledon Bay massacre. The drawing together of different groups created tensions and Wonggu's family was involved in a period of lethal conflict. He provided scouts and guides to assist Thomson's Special Reconnaissance Unit in World War II.

'Wonggu, King of the Balamumu', had caught the imagination of the popular press in the 1930s and his name was prominent in sensational reports of the incidents in Arnhem Land. Ion Idriess and Victor Hall characterized him as an evil genius in their accounts of the Caledon Bay massacre. Thomson disagreed, respecting him as a 'gallant warrior', 'frank and completely fearless'. He described Wonggu as 'a tall, powerful man with [an] intelligent face, deep set eyes and a heavy beard, trimmed almost in Van Dyck style'. Fred Gray was to remember him as an impressive man in whose company he spent the happiest time of his life. Wonggu died on 7 June 1959 at Yirrkala. A man of influence, authority and charisma, he represented a romantic and little known aspect of Northern Territory history. More importantly, the events in which he was involved drew attention to the issues of Aboriginal justice and rights to land.

Select Bibliography

  • I. L. Idriess, Man Tracks (Syd, 1935)
  • V. C. Hall, Dreamtime Justice (Adel, 1962)
  • M. Dewar, The 'Black War' in Arnhem Land (Darwin, 1992)
  • J. Kadiba, An Account of the Fijian Missionaries in Arnhem Land 1916-1988 (Darwin, 1994)
  • T. Egan, Justice All Their Own (Melb, 1996)
  • Northern Standard (Darwin), 1 June 1934
  • F. Gray papers (Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Library)
  • A1, item 1938/6715 and F1, item 1936/386 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Mickey Dewar, 'Wonggu (1880–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/wonggu-12061/text21635, accessed 24 September 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012